HOMESTEAD, Fla.—Three thoughts on Ford EcoBoost 400, the final race in the Chase for the Cup, in which Kevin Harvick took his fifth checkered flag of the season and his first career Sprint Cup championship.
1. The best driver won
Which is amazing considering the No. 4 car started the 2014 season as a rebooted outfit, and neither Harvick nor crew chief Rodney Childers had really collaborated in the past, let alone most of the people working on that Stewart-Haas team. And when they went on to make cars that were fast but flubbing opportunities to close out victories, owner Tony Stewart offered up his 2011 title-winning pit crew in exchange for Harvick’s right before the Chase.
The result produced three wins: two of them dominant, and this last one a triumph of yellow-flag strategy. After spending most of the race staring at the rear spoiler of pole-sitter Jeff Gordon (whose 161 laps led were the most of the contest) to then overtaking Gordon and leading 54 laps himself, Harvick was shuffled back to 12th on a late pit stop. There, his team’s decision to put four tires on his Chevy would prove crucial, especially after Denny Hamlin, the race leader at the time, opted to stay out on older rubber.
After two restarts, the first interrupted by a crash toward the back of the pack, Harvick shot to the front with three laps to go. The rest was academic. By finishing at the head of his class for the first time in his 14-year Cup career, Harvick at last has fulfilled expectations. They started out high when he was tapped to replace Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the wake of his fatal Daytona crash at the turn of the century, and only got higher when contemporaries like Gordon, Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch zoomed ahead of him. Yeah, it took time, but Harvick caught up.
2.The next best Chasers had their chances
Hamlin led 50 laps and might well have stretched that margin if he had pitted with the rest of the leaders with 20 laps left. That call, which is on crew chief Darian Grubb, was followed by a crackle of second-guessing from Hamlin over the radio. The fact that it didn’t pan out means that now Hamlin will have another championship near miss hanging over him along with the one from 2010.
Meanwhile, Ryan Newman mounted about as fantastic a challenge a driver could mount without winning, rallying from the 21st spot on the grid to third with seven laps to go. For a while there, it looked like he might luck into a divine tailwind and finally get that first win -- and what sweet poetic justice would that have been if it had led to a title. But, alas, down the stretch Newman didn’t have enough in his Chevy to catch the one just ahead of him driven by Harvick. Newman’s second-place result was the highest of his season. Though it wasn’t high enough, man, was it a thrill.
Still, no Chaser had it worse than Joey Logano. He ran behind the leaders for a good chunk of the day and seemed like one or two mechanical tweaks away from catching them until the No. 22 team committed a pair of devastating unforced errors. The first was on Logano. While attempting to run down Gordon on the high groove of the racetrack, he brushed the wall with 86 laps to go. His scrape, which threw off the considered calibrations of his Chevy, effectively allowed the third-place-running Harvick to overtake him and get to work cutting into Gordon’s lead.
The second was on Logano’s crew. Some 40 laps later after Logano’s concentration lapse came a disastrous pit stop that saw his Penske crew fumble a tire change and struggle to prop up Logano’s Chevy. The stop dropped Logano to 22nd on the grid, a lot that effectively ended his championship run. Of course Team Penske, which locked up the owner’s championship in the Nationwide series a day earlier and the IndyCar championship some three months ago, had hoped for much, much more. But the fact that its 24-year-old pilot got this far, and so soon after teammate Brad Keselowski won a Cup trophy for the organization, should leave owner Roger Penske and Co. feeling good about their future in stock car racing, which has never been brighter.
3. The new look Chase delivered everything it promised
The fans wanted more intensity during the regular season, higher stakes in the postseason and more human drama all around. Well, the new Chase came through and then some. Of course, it had its dicey moments -- not the fighting, but those last couple of weeks when it looked like two winless drivers might skate all the way through to the finish. But ultimately, the system got it right. It forced the best team to prove its might for the entire season, with no exceptions. How many sports can make the same boast about their champion?